Adjusting Armrests on Your Office Chair

Ergonomic chairs may help relieve neck or back pain.
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Walk into your favorite office supply store and you’ll likely find that few, if any, chairs on the sales floor come with adjustable arm rests. Of the chairs that do offer arm rest adjustments, most are limited to a height adjustment only. Width and pivot adjustments for chair arm rests generally have to be ordered.

Why Arm Rests?

But jumping through the hoops necessary to get those extra options may pay off in terms of prevention and/or relief of neck pain.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science suggests that forearm support, which is quite often provided by properly configured arm rests, may reduce pain or discomfort in your neck or shoulders. The researchers explain that without forearm support and good shoulder positioning, some muscles that affect this area, namely the upper trapezius and the deltoid muscles, are continuously active at a low intensity level. It's this activation that may underlie the onset of neck pain in the office.

Before putting money down on an office chair, do your neck, shoulders, arms and hands a favor by gaining skill with all the adjustments, including those for the armrests. By doing so, you'll be in a position operate a fancy chair if you happen to have one, or if your work or budget allows, to make a smart purchase that will help you avoid pain.

Here is a guide to arm rest adjustments that come with some ergonomic chairs:

Arm Rest Height

Height is the most common armrest adjustment. And it's a very useful adjustment — positioning your armrests at a level that fits you may help avoid the kind of tension and resultant pain in your shoulders or neck mentioned above.

Adjust your arm rest height so that you can easily position your wrists in neutral.

A neutral wrist is one where the hand is an extension of the forearm, and your wrist neither flexes down nor extends up to enable you to reach keyboard or mouse.

If the arm rest is too high, you may find that you compensate in your shoulder position, which in turn can increase the tension in the muscles there. If it is too low, you may run the ergonomic risk of contact stress at the forearm or wrist. Repeated contact stress may lead to tendonitis or other problems.

There are a couple of designs for arm rest height; they are the button and the dial (or knob) type. Fortunately, both types are easy to work, to the point of being self-explanatory. All you need to do is spend just a couple of minutes exploring how they work and trying several levels until your arms feel well-supported.

Arm Rest Width

Along with contributing to good body alignment, adjusting the width of your arm rests may help relax the muscles in your shoulders, neck, arms, and hands.

To achieve a good width for you, adjust the armrests so that your elbows are directly under your shoulders. 

Not all office chairs have the width adjustment, though. And when they do, it will likely require use of a screwdriver and some patience.

Set the width when you first assemble the chair.

Arm Rest Pivot

Pivoting armrests, which means they turn in and out, is another feature that can help you identify the most comfortable position for your shoulders and neck. This is especially true if you are prone to kyphosis.

Kyphosis is a postural condition in which your upper back rounds forward. If you have it, most likely your shoulders round forward, too. Using the pivot feature may help you stretch the pec muscles in front and contract the rhomboids in back, which are exercises that are usually given to office workers, anyway. This is one corrective exercise strategy a physical therapist might suggest for reversing kyphosis.

So, why not let your office chair help you?

Non-Adjustable Armrests and the Armless Chair

Most office chairs sold at chain stores are either armless or have non-adjustable arm rests. If you decide on non-adjustable arm rests, be sure they fit your frame.

To do so, sit in the chair and put your forearms on the supports and see how it feels to your neck and shoulders. Compare a few chairs. If the armrests are too low, you may be able to add some foam to raise the height. (Just duct-tape it on.)

Task chairs are often armless. Armless chairs may allow you to move with a greater comfort level. But many people need the support an arm rest gives in order to avoid fatiguing the shoulders, back, and neck.

A Word About Office Injuries

Believe it or not, you can get an injury from the day in, day out repetitive movements and postures you use while performing your computer job.

While low back injuries are more common overall in the population, injuries to the upper extremity, i.e., your hand, wrist, elbow and/or shoulder) occur most frequently in offices. The sad fact is, though, much less is known about upper body and upper extremity injuries than about low back pain.

But one thing is for sure: If you work all day with your neck, shoulder, and arm in an awkward position (as many people do because, to a great extent, it's the nature of the work,) you'll likely develop excess muscle tension and joint strain, conditions which almost always underlie or contribute to musculoskeletal injuries.

Armrests can help take the load off your shoulders, which will likely relieve strain and tension.

Sources

Gonçalves, J., et. al. The effects of forearm support and shoulder posture on upper trapezius and anterior deltoid activity. J Phys Ther Sci. May 2017

Ming, Z. et. al., Neck and Shoulder Pain Related to Computer Use. Pathophysiology. July 2004. 

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